Upgrade Your Dressage Test Riding

Courtney King-Dye Try shares tips to improve your scores in the show ring.
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I just returned from a show and thought I would write about what I saw and how some movements in different tests can be improved.

The trot loop

The trot loop

The trot loop. I see many people in Training Level, Test 3, do this movement as if it were two straight lines connected by a corner, rather than riding them as smoothly curved lines. The purpose of all Training Level tests is to see if your horse is supple on both sides, and the loop is designed to show this off. Instead of riding turn, straight, turn, straight, make it one continuous loop. So the left loop H-X-K (see diagram) shows off your horse’s left bend from the corner to the first quarterline. Then, within a few strides over the quarterline, clearly change to the right bend. Keep it around X, and then over the next quarterline clearly shift to back left bend. Always take a few strides to change your bend to make it smooth.

It’s important to show bend in the horse’s whole body not just through his neck. This comes from the rider’s inside leg. I often tell my students to leg yield away from the bend each way. It’s important that this leg yield allows the horse to fall out through the outside shoulder to exaggerate the bend; it shouldn’t be like a leg yield on a straight line where the outside rein keeps the horse parallel. The hind legs shouldn’t cross over; your inside leg is pushing the barrel over to get body bend. So, for the left loop, keep the left bend and think of leg yielding to the right. Then, when you bend right, think of leg yielding to the left. Let the shoulder fall out to encourage the bend. 

I often see riders posting through the loop maintaining the same diagonal. I don’t think you get marked off for it, but the correct way is to change your diagonal each time you change direction, so there should be two changes of diagonal during each loop. We post with the outside front leg because we want to take weight off when the inside hind comes forward because it should be carrying the most weight. This is why sometimes a horse feels off when we post on the wrong diagonal.

Lengthening. I also see many lengthenings that could be improved by making the trot or canter strides before and after extra short. This not only will make the lengthening itself better by putting the horse on his hind end and improving his balance, it will also show a difference. Even if your lengthening isn’t good, the judge needs to see a difference. I see many CKD riders gradually develop a lengthening and gradually shorten it again. The lengthening should start abruptly and finish abruptly. One stride should be collected and the next extended. There are rare exceptions that some horses need to build up in order to keep their balance. In general, people need to make their transitions clearer. In many tests, the transitions get their own scores; take advantage of that.

Halts. One often-neglected but important movement found in every test—and I’m as guilty as anyone for not doing enough of them—is the halt. In some tests, there are as many as three halts. That’s three 5s you can get or three 8s. I see many people having to pull their horses into a halt, which puts the horse on his forehand and his hindquarters out behind, resulting in an unsquare halt. 

If you are having trouble, I find it works to break down a request into several parts, each of which is necessary to the whole movement. Focus on each part until it works easily, making the movement more reliable. With the halt, work to make your halt aids extremely clear by giving the horse warning. In trot, I have my students do two separate half halts. The first says, something’s coming, engage your hind end and listen. Then clearly release. While the hind end is still active and the mind knows something is coming, ask for halt.

In order to do a smooth transition from the canter to halt, the canter needs to be the same speed as the halt for a moment. But, to keep the hind legs active and get a square halt, the horse must think he is going to push forward again. So don’t think halt; think canter on the spot. When he does that “decide” to let him halt. He must think you might go forward again and keep his hind end engaged. In schooling, particularly with horses that anticipate halting at X, I’ll just go down the centerline and collect the canter to almost on-the-spot at X, then go forward and then collect again. I’ll rarely halt at X except in the show ring. I’ll practice halts on the long sides.

Between movements. Another place to improve every test ridden is the nonmovement portion. Every corner is a half halt. Every short side is a time to show your horse off. Take advantage of this opportunity. Use corners to balance your horse and show your best possible gait on the short sides. Here is an example: Myth [Harmony’s Mythilus, Courtney’s 2008 Olympic mount] had a very short neck; it was literally wider than it was long. He was also super strong, and any touching of his mouth made his neck shrink even more. It was a difficult combination and one I needed to offset as much as possible. I was bound to have a short neck in movements where I had to touch his mouth, for which I lost a lot of points. So I’d go deep into the corners and use every short side to make his neck as long as possible. That way, at least the judge could see I wasn’t just cranking him in and also that, even with a relaxed neck with almost no contact, he still had a short neck. 

Last tip: It took me a while to learn this, but I realized that at a show I was riding the test not the horse. Know your test so well that you don’t even have to think about the pattern. Then you can focus on riding the horse.

Courtney King-Dye represented the United States in the 2008 Olympic Games and the 2007 and 2008 World Cups. She is a USDF Certified Instructor through Fourth Level and USDF gold medalist (ckddressage.com).

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